“Hey Bill –
Most business books oversimplify success to only 1 or 2 lessons. Do you know how many lessons you packed into ‘Press Go?’ I’ve counted 143. That’s a lot of stuff to remember. All of Judaism is based on only 13 Pillars. Christianity has 8. Islam can name that tune in 5. Hinduism has 4. So, cut to the chase, what are the most important lessons for new and aspiring entrepreneurs?”
Good question Peter. I guess I got carried away. The answer does depend on where you are in your entrepreneurial journey. I was raised a Catholic and had the 7 Deadly Sins drilled into me from grade school through high school – greed, pride, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. The 7 Deadly Sins were codified in the fourth century, by a Christian monk named Evagrius Ponticus. He named them ‘deadly’ because they spur more serious sins that could lead to the eventual death of the soul. So, let’s go with the 7 mistakes that are made by new and aspiring entrepreneurs that could lead to the eventual death of their startup.
#1 – Don’t start a company to become rich and famous. It’s highly unlikely that will happen. 99% of startups fail within the first 3 years. Buying a lottery ticket gives you better odds.Instead, find something that you are passionate about. If you are passionate about your work and love what you do, you’ll spend every possible moment thinking about it. It becomes an obsession – but a good obsession. If it’s a startup and you’ve created your exit plan before you begin, then it’s not an obsession.
Passion isn’t just about enjoying the result – it’s just as much about enjoying the struggle. Often an entrepreneur will feel like Sisyphus – condemned by the gods to push a boulder to a mountain top only to have it roll back down. An entrepreneur refuses to surrender to gravity. If you are passionate about what you are doing – it isn’t just about enjoying the reward of reaching the mountain top. It’s mostly about savoring the experience of pushing that damn rock up the hill.
#2 – Don’t build your company around a technology. A good business idea starts with the customer’s problem. Find a problem that people have and figure out how you can credibly solve it. Don’t worry about the technology until you have that figured out. The problem should be big enough so that potential customers are willing to spend money to solve it. If they already have a budget for addressing it – better yet. Big problems are good — but big, complex solutions aren’t. Startups often fail not because their idea isn’t big enough; rather, they fail because their idea is too big. For startups, the simpler plan is often better.
#3 – Don’t stop believing. After you find your idea, believe you can do it. One of the greatest highs is accomplishing something that everyone – even the experts — especially the experts – say is impossible to do. But you won’t accomplish it unless you firmly believe you can do it. After you convince yourself, convince your team. Your confidence will become infectious and keep you and your team going when times get tough. Never give up your dreams. Sometimes it takes a long time for things to happen quickly.
#4. Don’t become disillusioned when Plan A doesn’t happen. It seldom does. The best indicator of a team’s success is how good they are at executing Plan B. The average successful startup pivots 5 times. Are you able to turn 1 step backwards into 2 steps forward?
#5. Don’t hire A**holes. When building your team, commitment to the mission trumps talent. The #3 reason that startups fail – not building the right team. At ZEFER, we created the ‘No A**hole Rule’ which states, “We are confident that the population of talented people is large enough that we can always surround ourselves with people who aren’t A**holes.
But don’t confuse that with ‘culture.’ You’ll hear “culture is key to the success of a team.” That couldn’t be any further from the truth. Google ‘culture.’ It’s defined as the characteristics of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music, and arts. Recruiting based on music people listen to, their age, how they dress, or how many tattoos they have has nothing to do with how a team performs – and it crushes diversity. Instead, surround yourself with people that share your values. ‘Values’ are defined as principles and standards of behavior. That’s critically important to a high-performing team. Go with values over culture.
#6. Don’t believe, even for a moment, that Sales is not your personal responsibility. Everyone is in Sales.It’s a shared attitude. Every member of your team should look for, and work to close, opportunities with classmates, friends, and family. Make that clear in your startup’s statement of values. Get comfortable at networking. Failure to build and leverage your network is cited as one of the key reasons that a startup fails.
#7. Don’t minimize Tier 3 customers. In business school, we all learned about Tier 3 customers. They are small, without much money, not sophisticated, and don’t have a strong brand. We’re taught that they will consume our resources with little return — and so should be avoided. But, in a startup, there is no such thing as a Tier 3 customer. You never know where that relationship may lead. Winning your second customer is always easier after you’ve won your first. So, make everyone feel special. Follow through on your commitments for everyone. Always be responsive to everyone. Work hard and over-prepare – for everyone.
I’ll close with one last bit of advice. On your entrepreneurship journey, you’ll have good days, and there will be difficult days. You’ll occasionally contemplate giving up. We all do. Steve Job’s said, “Half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the unsuccessful ones is pure perseverance.” Before you decide to quit, take a moment, and reflect on why you started. Enjoy the struggle and the result. May God, Hashem, Allah and Brahman guide us to the straight path.